As fall camp beings to wind down for the Northern Illinois football team, attention begins to shift to the smaller details that go into preparing for a season.
More time begins to be devoted to the first opponent of the season as well as to the sometimes forgotten third phase of the game, special teams.
“I thought we had good tempo today,” said NIU head coach Dave Doeren of Thursday’s practice. “We got a lot of good things done special teams-wise and preparing for Army. It was a pretty clean day. I know they are ready to hit someone else. We are at the point where the players are ready to quit focusing on stopping each other and start getting prepared to play against someone else’s scheme and get into a game.”
One portion of the special teams unit that appears to be set is the return game where redshirt junior Tommy Davis (East St. Louis, Ill./Althoff Catholic) continues to climb up the NIU career record chart.
Davis enters the 2011 season third all-time in NIU history in kickoff returns (52) and kickoff return yards (1,253). He also ranks fourth in school history with a 24.1 yard average returning kicks. Davis has also cracked the top-10 on the NIU punt return list, currently sitting ninth with 35 returns for 278 yards.
In 2010, Davis was named to the All-MAC Third Team as a return specialist after averaging 24.0 yards on 23 kick returns and 7.9 yards on 18 punt returns. Davis also recorded his second career kick return for a touchdown when he went 83 yards on a kick return against Toledo.
“There is no question that he has exceptional talent,” NIU special teams coordinator Eddie Faulkner said of Davis. “What we have to do is make it simple for the guys so that they can play fast and get him out in space so that he can do what he does best.
“Not only is he a guy that you trust will catch those balls and help you with field position, he is also a guy that, when he gets it, can do something with it. That is very exciting for us, I’m looking forward to a great season watching him run around and hopefully we do some good things.”
Placekicker is a position that remains up for grabs for the Huskies as sophomore Mathew Sims (Hannibal, Mo./Hannibal) and junior Josh Gallington (Bakersfield, Calif./Bakersfield Christian/Bakersfield JC) continue to compete for the spot.
“Coach Doeren will make that decision when we get towards the end of camp but they have both done some good things,” said Faulkner. “I’m proud of the way those guys have competed and the best guy, the guy who has been the most accurate in camp, will win that job.”
Sims saw limited action for the Huskies last season, appearing in five games as a true freshman. He connected of two of his three field goal attempts and made four-of-six PATs. Sims also had a six-yard run for a first down on a fake field goal at Ball State and kicked off twice against Eastern Michigan.
A newcomer to the NIU program, Gallington converted on 97-of-99 PAT attempts and 29-of-34 field goal attempts in two seasons at Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, Calif. During his freshman season in 2009, Gallington was a first team all-conference selection as well as a first team All-America honoree.
At punter, redshirt junior Ryan Neir (Roscoe, Ill./Hononegah) looks to assume the duties after three seasons in the program. Neir, who has yet to see action during his time at NIU, averaged 34.1 yards per punt in his two-year varsity career at Hononegah High School and was named special teams MVP as a senior.
“I think Neir has been great,” said Faulkner. “He has been consistent with what he is doing, I’m proud of what he has done and he will be a great weapon for us this season.”
Beyond the specialist positions, Faulkner believes that the special teams unit plays an important role in creating an overall mentality for a football team.
“Coverage units are all about attitude. Coach Tuke (Tom Matukewicz) works with the kickoff coverage and Coach (Kevin) Kane works with the punt coverage. They do a great job setting the tone with those groups. Those units are the toughness of your team. They dictate how games start and how the flow of the game is going to go. You have to be tough and you have to want to be on those teams and I think we have a lot of guys that want to do that.”
The Huskies open the season at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3, when Army makes its first visit to Huskie Stadium.